Saturday, June 12, 2010

A tribute to my mother

My mother, Kie, passed away last Sunday at 85 and I want to share some thoughts about her. She was born in Arkansas and raised in rural northern Louisiana near Shreveport. According to family tradition her name, Kie, is a diminutive form of Keziah, one of Job's daughters in the Old Testament (Job 42:14). This name has been taken to symbolize female equality, since all of Job's three daughters received an inheritance from their father, an unusual circumstance in a time period when women and men were not treated equally.

Mom went on to earn a second family moniker, "our little abolitionist", which she wore proudly. Taught by her grandmother to read extensively, particularly the Bible, my mother took the gospel seriously and began to question the racism and segregation in her family's Episcopal church at that time and place. She would eventually join the Religious Society of Friends when she and my father moved to Nashville (Tenn) in the 1950s, finding Quakerism more compatible with her understanding of God.

Fighting for racial equality was one of my mother's main causes. In Nashville, she was active in the civil rights movement, largely through the Congress of Racial Equality and one of CORE's founders, the late Jim Farmer, became a life long family friend. When our family left Nashville for France in 1962, mom struck her own blow for integration by selling our house in what had been up until then an all white neighborhood to an African American couple over the strenuous objections of our neighbors. And when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, I have vivid memories of coming home from school to find my mother sitting by the radio, sobbing inconsolably.

From civil rights, she moved on to Palestinian rights and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. She always sported a button with "Peace" in English, Hebrew and Arabic. She was an anti-apartheid activist as long as I can remember and local merchants became accustomed to my mother asking where their oranges came from since in France at the time they were often from Israel or South Africa -- two countries on my mother's personal boycott list.

When she moved to London, my mother was active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and she worked for a time for the Luthuli Memorial Foundation which provided scholarships to students from southern Africa.

Mother's second area of activism was peace and support for the United Nations. For a long time she directed the World Federation of United Nations Associations liaison office at UNESCO and later worked for the Campaign for UN Reform and the Capital Area Division of UNA-USA. She both worked for and was a member of War Resisters International and its US affiliate, the War Resisters League. Dave McReynolds, long time leader of WRL, was a frequent guest in our home.

Mother was also active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace Pledge Union and one aspect that was particularly dear to her heart as a Quaker was defending the right to conscientious objection to military service and ending compulsory conscription. After her retirement she worked as a volunteer with the Friends Committee on National Legislation until dementia made it impossible for her to live safely independently.

On the personal side, my mother sought to instill her values in me and my sister. Work was valued and so we earned our allowances by doing the family's daily grocery shopping and when we were older, mom "hired" us to collate documents and prepare mailings where she worked.

Education was another value and my mother who had all but her dissertation towards a PhD in Sociology, prodded her daughters into getting master's degrees. She read to us before we could read for ourselves and took us to the library from a very early age. She always sought to expand our cultural horizons and would take us on trips. I remember as a teenager accompanying her to Cyprus for a UN-related meeting with a side trip to Egypt to see the pyramids. In the early 1980s, she treated both of us to a health care workers' tour of Cuba.

Mother shared her love for languages. She spoke English and French fluently and had a working knowledge of Spanish, Italian and Serbo-Croat. Long after her retirement, favorite pastimes were crossword puzzles and playing Scrabble until her illness wiped out her vocabulary.

There was nothing my mother would not do to help her daughters. She helped both of us financially so we could own homes as she did, yet she herself lived simply and even frugally. After her divorce from our father, she embraced vegetarianism, forsaking the boeuf bourguignon that had been her signature dish. She composted, reused, recycled, and took special delight in gardening.

Finally, as I was going through my mother's possessions, I found a letter I wrote to her when I was a freshman in college. If she were still here, I would say the same words to her today: "You have conveyed to me the person you want me to be -- hard working, concerned for humanity, a volunteer and a person of integrity and understanding. That's who I'm trying to be more or less and I'm proud that you gave me those aspirations."

I'm still trying. Mom, I will always be proud of you and I pray that God will give me the grace to live to be the woman you were. May you rest in peace. You have earned it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Leonardo Boff endorses Marina Silva, Green Party candidate for president in Brazil

June 10, 2010

Leonardo Boff, the writer and liberation theologian, spoke on Thursday in favor of Marina Silva, the noted Brazilian environmentalist and former senator and minister of the environment, at the convention in Brasilia that formalized her candidacy for the Green Party. "I have never participated in any event to launch a candidacy, but the invitation from Marina changed my mind. She makes policy with the methods of Gandhi, with respect for living things," said the theologian.

Boff also said that involvement in environmental issues in the elections will be benefitted by the candidate's presence. "After her, policy will be different. Marina has introduced two fundamental principles: first sustainability, which opposes the devastation of nature, and care, which opposes the domination that marks our culture," he said.

Boff said that "the earth, humankind and Brazil need Marina and Guilherme Leal to save this heritage that the universe has given us" and he highlighted the activities of Leal with regard to Natura Cosméticos, a firm in which Leal has a major stake. "Guilherme Leal is a worthy candidate for vice president because he has deployed ecological methods in the production process at Natura," he said.

The theologian said that Brazil needs a woman in government. Citing a document of the United Nations, Boff said that "we must give more decision-making and power to women if we want to save the planet."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Nostalgia for the servant in old Brazilian diplomacy

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The philosopher F. Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit analyzed the dialectic of master and servant in detail. The lord becomes all the more the master when the servant internalizes the master, which further deepens his servant status. Paulo Freire identified the same dialectic in the oppressed-oppressor relationship in his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Frei Betto said humorously: "In the head of every oppressed person is a virtual plaque that says: inn of the oppressor." That is, the oppressed hosts the oppressor within himself and it is exactly this that makes him oppressed. Liberation occurs when the oppressed detaches from the oppressor and then a new story begins in which there is no oppressed or oppressor but free citizens.

I am writing this with regard to our trade press, the newspapers in Rio, São Paulo and Porto Alegre, with reference to the Lula government's foreign policy in its effort to mediate with the Turkish government to reach a peaceful agreement with Iran on the enrichment of uranium for non-military purposes. Reading the views expressed by these newspapers, either in editorials or by their writers, some of them ambassadors of the old guard, hostages of the Cold War era, in the friend-enemy logic is simply shocking. O Globo speaks of "diplomatic suicide" (5/24) to name just one almost gentle title. They could well put under their newspapers' mastheads "Branch of the Empire", since their voice is more an echo of the voice of the imperial master than journalism that reports objectively and opines honestly. Others, like the Jornal do Brasil, have followed a line of objectivity, providing key data for readers to make their assessment.

The views reveal people yearning for this internalized imperial master, who behave as his succubi. They will not admit that Lula's Brazil has gained global importance and become an important political player as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon repeated recently in Brazil. They want to see it in its place: at the colonial periphery, in line with the imperial boss, like a trained mongrel. I can imagine how much the owners of these newspapers suffer, having to accept that Brazil will never be what they would like it to be: an aggregated state such as Hawaii or Puerto Rico. As it will not be possible, the way to heed the voice of the internalized master is to slander, ridicule and disparage even in an unpatriotic way the initiative and figure of the President. He is well recognized throughout the world as an exceptional speaker, with great skill in negotiations and gifted with a special force of persuasion.

The Brazilian people hate subservience to the powerful and value, sometimes naively, foreigners and other peoples. They are proud of their president. He is one of them, a survivor of the great tribulation, whom the elite, considered by Darcy Ribeiro to be the most reactionary in the world, will never accept because they think his place is not in the presidency, but in the factory, producing for them. But history wanted him to be president and appear as a character of great charisma, uniting in his being tenderness for the poor and the strength with which he upholds their positions.

We are witnessing the clash of two paradigms of diplomacy: one ancient, imperial, intimidating, with the use of ideological, economic and possibly military truculence, a diplomacy that is the enemy of peace and life, one which has never brought lasting results. And another, of the twenty-first century, that realizes that we live in a new phase of history, the collective history of the people who are obliged to live together harmoniously on a small planet, with scarce resources and half devastated. For this new situation the tireless diplomacy of dialogue is required, win-win negotiation, successes beyond the differences. Lula has understood this planetary phase. He has become the protagonist of the new, of the strategy that can effectively prevent the greatest plague that has ever existed: war that only destroys and kills. Now, either we follow this new diplomacy, or we devour each other. Either Hillary or Lula.

Our trade press is obtuse in the face of this new development. That is why it hates Lula's diplomacy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Women priests: Why not?

In the middle of all of my personal struggles with the death of my mother after years of dementia last Sunday, I have been thinking about women in the priesthood. Last Sunday, as my sister, a Quaker, took her turn sitting with our dying mother, I went downstairs to attend the Catholic service at my mother's assisted living facility.

The service was ably led by a lay woman extraordinary minister of Holy Communion from a nearby Catholic church who distributed pre-consecrated hosts to her elderly flock and adroitly and discretely dealt with such special situations as when one woman with advanced Alzheimers decided (I guess) that she was not up to swallowing even the little piece of host she was given and spit it into the water glass she was carrying. Our lay leader also read and offered a lovely, simple reflection on the gospel passage of the day. As I looked up at her, standing before us in the activities room that was temporarily "church", I could imagine her in a chasuble and wondered why our institutional Church thinks such a caring person cannot be a priest just because of her gender. Personally, I felt truly blessed to be able to be with her for a few moments before returning to my mother's bedside. Not just the Body of Christ, but this woman's strong calm presence gave me strength.

This same question is being asked by the Women's Ordination Conference who are at the Vatican this week protesting in conjunction with the ceremonies closing out the Year For Priests. According to news reports, the women wore lavender stoles, the symbol of the movement for women's ordination, and unfurled banners reading "Born to be priests" and "Vocation is important, not gender". They also distributed leaflets. They were arrested and detained several hours by Vatican police for demonstrating without a permit.

WOC also held a press conference at which they issued the following statement:

Today, during the final days of the Vatican's declared Year for Priests, we are lifting up the voices of Catholics from around the world to call for women to be fully included in our Church, especially as priests, deacons, and bishops. We denounce the injustice of prohibiting women from being ordained.

The absolute hypocrisy of the ‘Year for Priests' celebration cuts to the core of what is wrong with the hierarchy today. The Vatican is all too happy to turn a blind eye when men in its ranks destroy the lives of children and families, but jumps at the chance to excommunicate women who are doing good works and responding to injustice and the needs of their communities. While the hierarchy spends their time covering up scandals and throwing major celebrations for themselves, Catholic women are working for justice and making a positive difference in the world.

At the same time the Vatican announced this Jubilee Year for Priests with great fanfare, it was sending investigators to scrutinize communities of women religious in the U.S. These women who have been the backbone of the U.S. Catholic Church are currently under fire for everything from supporting women's ordination, to refusing to condemn homosexuality.

And while the Vatican celebrates its priests this weekend, every day more than 31,000 lay ministers - 80% of whom are women - serve the Church with paltry pay, no job security, and little recognition. It's clear the Vatican's priorities need a serious realignment.

For far too long, only ordained, male, celibate clergy have dictated -or tried to dictate- how Catholics worship, pray and make decisions. Canon 1024, which states that only men can validly receive the sacrament of ordination, is unjust and does not value the gospel message of Jesus. It must be changed.

The Women's Ordination Conference calls for an official opening of the discussion on women's ordination. The refusal to ordain women is nothing more than an egregious manifestation of sexism in the church. In a church reeling from abuse, scandal, and oppression, it is time for the Vatican to listen to its own research, its own theologians and its own people who declare that women and men are equally created in the image of God.

When women are full and equal partners in every aspect of the Catholic Church, only then, will the Roman Catholic Church be associated with accountability, transparency and justice rather than hierarchy, hypocrisy, exclusion, and scandal. Until then, we will continue to raise our collective voices and organize actions that will bring our church closer to the gospel values of Jesus.